4th Earl of Aberdeen

Hon. George Gordon

The Hon. George Gordon, afterwards fourth Earl of Aberdeen, was born at Edinburgh on the 28th of January, 1784. He was the eldest son of George Gordon, Lord Haddo, and grandson of the third earl. His mother was Charlotte, daughter of William Baird, of Newbyth, and sister of Sir David Baird, the distinguished soldier. The Gordons were an ancient Scots family who had risen to distinction in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and were the owners of considerable estates in the county from which they took their title. They were an active and energetic race. Of Lord Haddo's six sons two became admirals, two colonels, one was a distinguished diplomatist and a privy councillor, and one Prime Minister.

George Gordon's father died when he was seven years old, his mother when he was eleven and his grandfather when he was seventeen. He was left under the guardianship of William Pitt and Lord Melville, who interested themselves seriously in their trust. He was first sent to Harrow, where Althorp and Palmerston were his schoolfellows. Then, on succeeding to the earldom in 1801, he went for a tour on the Continent, spending much of his time in Greece. He came back an ardent Philhellene and soon afterwards founded the Athenian Society. An article that he wrote on the topography of Troy gained him Byron's lines:
"First in the oat-fed phalanx shall be seen
The travell'd thane, Athenian Aberdeen."

In 1804 he matriculated and took his degree as a nobleman at St. John's College, Cambridge. The next year he married Lady Catherine Hamilton, daughter of John James, first Marquess of Abercorn, by whom he had several children.

In December 1806 Lord Aberdeen was elected a Scottish representative peer, and as a follower of his late guardian Pitt he joined the Tory party. In the course of the next two years he was invested a Knight of the Thistle and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He occasionally spoke in the House of Lords, but was chiefly occupied with art and history, becoming President of the Society of Antiquaries, and writing several works on architecture.

In 1812 he lost his wife. He turned his attention to active work, and the next year was sent on a special mission to Austria. A few months later he was appointed ambassador at Vienna, when he was not yet thirty years of age. Here he formed a close friendship with Prince Metternich the statesman. A contemporary calls him at this time, "of a sound and cultivated understanding, impenetrable discretion and polite but somewhat grave and restrained manners."

He accompanied the Emperor Francis through the Leipsic campaign and saw some military service. Subsequently he represented Great Britain at the Congress of Chatillon and signed the Treaty of Paris. For these services he was in 1814 created a peer of Great Britain and sworn a privy councillor.

In 1815 he married as his second wife Harriet, daughter of the Hon. James Douglas, of the Morton family, and widow of Viscount Hamilton. She was a sister-in-law of his late wife.

He now settled down in Scotland, and for some years again enjoyed a period of political repose. He was content to live quietly at Haddo House, interesting himself in agriculture, forestry, the management of his estates and the care of his growing family. His diplomatic experiences had confirmed his Tory beliefs, and he still distrusted innovations. Accordingly on Liverpool's death in 1827 he came forward and spoke against Canning's administration. A year later he joined the Duke of Wellington's government as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. When approving this appointment George IV. said of him that "he was an excellent politician and that it was very advantageous to get a person in the Duchy who would keep Knighton down."!

On the secession of the Canningites from the government four months later Aberdeen was appointed Foreign Secretary. It might have been expected that his knowledge of Continental affairs would have fitted him for this position, but he seems to have had little initiative or decision of his own. He was all for non-interference abroad and clearly showed the Metternich influence. His tenure of office, however, included the recognition by Turkey of the independence of Greece and that of Louis Philippe by Great Britain. In domestic affairs he manifested some signs of liberalism by his support of the repeal of the Test Acts.

After 1830 Aberdeen remained in opposition until Sir Robert Peel's short administration of 1834-1835, when he acted as Secretary for War and the Colonies, though without showing any special strength or ability. He was still regarded as a cautious, narrow, though very level-headed Scotsman.

During the second Melbourne ministry Aberdeen was again in opposition and little to the fore, though in 1840 he introduced a bill which was intended to avert the threatened schism in the Scottish Church. It was a half-and-half measure, unsatisfactory to both sides, and was soon withdrawn; but three years later a similar bill was passed for the same purpose, though it also had but little effect.

On Peel returning to office in 1841, Aberdeen resumed his old post as Foreign Secretary, His conduct of affairs now showed rather more character than previously and was distinctly beneficial to the country, though still inclined to be pacific. To his conciliatory policy was largely due the prevention of hostilities with the United States in 1842 and with France two years later, for generally speaking his line of action was eminently discreet. He was a loyal follower of Peel and held progressive views in some phases of home politics, for he gave as cordial and unhesitating support to the repeal of the Corn Laws as he had previously done to Catholic relief. He left office with the rest of the government in 1846 and showed remarkable generosity to Palmerston, who succeeded him as Foreign Secretary. Aberdeen desired to have an interview with him and said: "When I came into office five years ago, you wanted to come back again and turn me out, and you accordingly attacked me in every way you could, as you had a perfect right to do. Circumstances are very different now. I do not want to turn you out, and I never mean to come into office again, and I am therefore come to tell you that I am ready to give you every information that may be of use to you and every assistance I can." Palmerston was much touched at this spontaneous offer from a political opponent, and it probably had a great deal to do with his accepting Aberdeen as a chief some years later.

For the next few years Aberdeen again took no prominent part in Parliament, speaking only occasionally, and then on foreign politics. But the death of his old chief in 1850 made him the recognized leader of the Peelites, and he was obliged to come more to the front. A year later he was asked to join Lord John Russell's reconstructed government. This he refused to do owing to differences of opinion on the Ecclesiastical Titles Assumption Bill, and for the same reason he declined to form an administration of his own. In 1852, however, after the fall of Russell's government, an exchange of letters took place between them as to a possible coalition of the Whigs and the moderate Conservatives. Aberdeen wrote: "Haddo House, "My dear Lord John," Sepemher 16, 1852. "It was no doubt rather a strong proceeding on the part of the Duke of Newcastle to suggest, to you of all men, the propriety and expediency of sinking the title of Whig. It is true that neither he nor I have the least desire or intention of assuming the appellation; but I presume that you would never think of acting with us unless you were persuaded that our views were liberal; and assuredly, in any connection with you, we should not be prepared to abandon a Conservative policy." Although the term may appear a little contradictory, I believe that 'Conservative Progress' best describes the principles which ought practically to influence the conduct of any government at the present day. This was Peel's policy, and I think will continue that of all his friends. For one, looking at the actual state of affairs, I have no objection that the progress should be somewhat more rapid than perhaps he ever intended." Ever most sincerely yours, "Aberdeen."

The result of this correspondence was that a basis of agreement was established between the two statesmen. This enabled the Queen, on the fall of Lord Derby's ministry in December 1852, to send for Aberdeen and to ask him to attempt a combination between the two progressive parties. He succeeded, and formed an apparently strong Coalition government of Whigs and Peelites, Russell and Palmerston being the principal of the former, and Gladstone, Herbert and himself of the latter. Such a promising and popular collection of politicians had not been seen since 1806. Although most of them had previously been strenuous opponents, they now agreed in the main on domestic affairs, and they were all in favour of Free Trade and moderate reform. But, like most coalitions, they soon fell apart. Aberdeen himself had called his venture "A great experiment, hitherto unattempted, and of which the success must be considered doubtful. If Party divisions began in the Cabinet, each section thinking that it had not its fairshare of influence. Within a year of the ministry's formation, Russell tells Aberdeen that "The Whigs write to me imagining that I have some influence in politics and ecclesiastical appointments. It is a mistake." And Aberdeen replies: "To say the truth, I thought that I had done little else than comply with your wishes either at the formation of the Government or ever since."

Besides these minor differences at home the Eastern question had arisen abroad. The vehemence of Palmerston strove to overbear Aberdeen's pacific views; it had only a half-success, and without any decided policy the ministry gradually drifted into the Crimean War. This was contrary to all Aberdeen's beliefs. He had said earlier of his government: "England will occupy her true position in Europe as the constant advocate of moderation and peace". His wish was now to be frustrated. Writing to Russell early in 1854 he says: "I wish that I could feel as much at ease on the subject of the unhappy war in which we are about to be engaged. The abstract justice of the cause, although indisputable, is but a poor consolation for the inevitable calamities of all war, or for a decision which I am not without fear may prove to have been impolitic and unwise. My conscience upbraids me the more because seeing, as I did from the first, all that was to be apprehended, it is possible that by a little more energy and vigour, not on the Danube, but in Downing Street, it might have been prevented."!

The Prime Minister had no enthusiasm, the Cabinet was at loggerheads, the military preparations were defective and all failures were attributed to the government. Aberdeen was worried and always looked ill. Palmerston complained and urged him to put more energy into the campaign. Russell criticized and took the same view. But Aberdeen was unwilling to displace the Duke of Newcastle, who was Secretary for War. He hesitated and temporized. Losses, sufferings and expenditure irritated the public. Eventually in January 1855, on a hostile motion to enquire into the conduct of the war, Russell left the Cabinet. It was in this debate that Bulwer Lytton said: "Dismiss your government and save your army." A week later, on the motion being carried, Aberdeen himself resigned. The Coalition government had been a thorough failure. Disraeli wrote of it: "The country was governed for two years by all its ablest men, who by the end of that term had succeeded by their coalesced genius in reducing that country to a state of desolation and despair."

The Queen, however, stood by her Prime Minister, and to mark her confidence in him gave him the Garter. But the consolation was of small value. His active work was done. Henceforward he took little share in politics, though for the remaining six years of his life he did his best to keep his followers together and to exercise a moderating influence. He died at Argyll House, St. James's, on the 14th of December, 1860, aged seventy-six. He left several children. The present marquess, who has represented the Crown in Ireland and Canada, is his grandson.

Aberdeen was dark, spare, pale and grave in appearance, cold and formal in manner. As a young man he had a distinctly attractive face, and he is the subject of one of Lawrence's best portraits. In 1846, however, Lady Lyttelton calls him "more of a scarecrow than ever, and quite as stiff as timber." Though a dull and ungraceful speaker, his matter was always sound and impressive. In private life he was a delightful companion, full of reading and general information, while his real interests in classical history, in art and in agriculture were shown by his practical work. Among his few intimates he was held in the highest veneration. Sir James Graham called him "a perfect gentleman ...who is honest and direct, and who will not brook insincerity in others." Lady Peel, writing just after her husband's death, says that Aberdeen was "the friend whom he most valued, for whom he had the sincerest affection, whom he esteemed higher than any."

As a foreign minister he was tiroid and restrained, but in domestic politics his ideas were thoroughly advanced and liberal. Without any special abilities he was a direct and singularly courageous advocate of unpopular opinions if he believed them to be right. In the face of such able and energetic men as Palmerston and Russell, who were competing for what he did not covet, he had little chance, and his ministry of clever men, led by a compromising chief, soon fell in pieces like similar coalitions before it. But his own reputation did not suffer. "He belonged, says Delane," to that class of statesmen who are great without being brilliant, who succeed without ambition, who without eloquence become famous, who retain their power even when deprived of place. He denied that his vocation was politics, but his friends knew him better; they appreciated his clear head, his tolerant nature, his vast experience and his perfect integrity."

Aberdeen was a Tory by origin and education, but his natural good sense and his knowledge of foreign countries had shown him the advantages to be derived by England from reasonable progress and constitutional development. Not a candidate for office, he felt that it was his duty to serve his country when called upon, and even to subordinate his own opinions to those of men whom he regarded as his superiors in intellect and decision. But when these conflicting theories were put to the hard test of practice the experiment failed, and Aberdeen's altruism and moderation were ruthlessly overborne in the stern battles of reality. An able, sincere and experienced man, he was a possible Prime Minister in times of peace; but in war his pacific temperament, his uncertain counsels and his hesitating decision spelt danger and might easily have spelt defeat.

Source:The Prime Ministers of Britain 1721-1921, by the Hon. Clive Bigham
Source: The Yoke of Empire: Sketches of the Queen's Prime Ministers, By Reginald B. Brett, 1896